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The Waste Land App reviewed

Chris Meade


Seamus Heaney says it in the Perspectives section of Faber’s beautifully produced app of The Waste Land:

Eliot always was accompanied always by interpretation. There was an official way of reading him from very early on and therefore I never had that experience of being alone and a little bewildered and then coming to it, being excited by it, getting to know it on one’s own.” Does this elegant app help readers to be alone with the poem or force us all back into class to be told how to do it properly?

I had the opposite of Heaney’s experience of Eliot:  I’ve loved the music of his words since I came across them as a teenager, have never studied Eliot’s work formally nor expected to understand it, but profoundly enjoyed the bewilderment. I’ve never thought of him as intimidating because I have always encountered him alone, in a setting where nobody was judging my critical responses. Now I’m finding this multi-layered app intimidates as well as illuminates, though it absolutely doesn’t try to tell us what it all means. Eliot’s own notes were thought at the time to be a parody of footnotes, and actually the videoed providers of perspectives here mostly end up saying make of it what you will.

The gallery is my favourite bit, giving us a clutch of relevant postcards – of Bob Dylan, Dante Alligheri, the first Mrs Eliot, a crowd of people crossing the river Thames,

‘so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.’

These images create real breathing space around the poem. They evoke, inform and leave the poem be.

There’s a picture of the first edition of Prufrock in a plain brown cover, then all the pages of the typescript manuscript with the inky slashes of Pound’s fierce corrections and comments. The notes, presented in a Comment-press style, can be brought up when wanted, then brushed away if you want the text plain. Likewise it’s a doddle to switch between the different audio readings or switch them off entirely.

The navigation works a dream and the design is classy in that Faber way. It doesn’t do anything more than an old CDRom could really, but the speedy app-iness of it makes this a personal reading experience rather than a clunky piece of ‘edu-tainment’.

Fiona Shaw performs the whole piece on video from a Dublin room, and there are interviews with a few different Eliot experts, including an ex-punk rocker alongside Raine, Heaney and Jeanette Winterson in the Perspective Section. There’s a kinky kind of pleasure in rubbing my finger across the faces of Famous Seamus and friends to rewind them.

Of the readings of the entire text, Ted Hughes is thunderous, Eliot scratchy monotonous, Shaw’s performance (which I loved on stage) too acTORish up close for my poetic taste. Despite his American accent, Viggo Mortensen’s reading of the poem comes closest to the voice I hear in my head as I read. Being able to read and listen along and then close my eyes as the words wash over is luxurious and something I want to be able to do with lots more poems. In fact this feels exactly how poems should be consumed.

I’m writing this review on my way back from a(nother!) conference on digital publishing, this one at the Scottish Universities Insight Institute in Glasgow, where I’ve been arguing (again) that the future of the book is about readers and writers not the publishing industry. It is compelling new work made fresh for these platforms by living authors which should be leading the way, not lavish enhancements of guaranteed classics. The Waste Land still feels like a wonderful learning resource rather than a digitally illuminated text or work of art in its own right. Which is fine, because it really is wonderful.

Chris Meade is Director of if:book. He is also a poetry lover and was Director of the Poetry Society for six years.

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8 Responses to “The Waste Land App reviewed”

  1. E Says:

    June 13th, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    It’s nice but isn’t this just something that would make for a website? Not sure why it needs to be an app, other than trying to make some money from it…

  2. Chris Meade Says:

    June 13th, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    I completely agree that an app is essentially a way of selling digital bits we used to expect for free – but then we all know writers, publishers etc. all need to find the means to earn a crust.
    But I also think the experience of reading an app installed on a device is much smoother and feels more like personal reading than navigating through trad websites does.

  3. Laura Says:

    June 16th, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    As long as apps exist, people will want to buy them… I think this looks like a great tool for reading the novel – and accessing all the notes through a side panel would not be quite the same on a Website. I am wondering how much it costs and who can afford to pay that?

  4. Victor Keegan Says:

    June 17th, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    As an app I can read it anywhere without needing web access. It is good for authors that at a time when so many people expect everything to be free that they can charge £7.99 for a single poem and get very satisfied customers (like me . . )
    The format enables one to read the annotations easily. Turns out that The Waste Land is the great re-mix of the twentieth century

  5. Chris Meade Says:

    June 22nd, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    One thing I failed to notice at first is that you can’t write your own notes on the app.
    The ‘pencil’ icon actually just links to other people’s notes – an example of how un-webby this app is.

  6. Futurebook Innovation Workshop — Beat Says:

    June 25th, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    […] that would work every bit as well as a website. Except that, as Chris Meade of if:book London wrote in a review on The Literary Platform “the experience of reading an app installed on a device is much smoother and feels more like […]

  7. Leon Cych Says:

    June 27th, 2011 at 1:37 am

    There needs to be user generated annotation.

    Let’s hope Pounds Cantos are next – there is a work crying out to be digitally annotated!

  8. Future Book Innovation Says:

    February 2nd, 2012 at 10:51 am

    […] would work every bit as well as a website. Except that, as Chris Meade of if:book London wrote in a review on The Literary Platform “the experience of reading an app installed on a device is much smoother and feels more like […]


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